Belfast Telegraph

End of Adams and McGuinness double act as Sinn Fein signals generational change

By John Downing

Martin McGuinness was a central figure in the IRA's 'long war' in Northern Ireland - but he was equally central to the long quest for peace.

Mr McGuinness shocked people on both sides of the border as he emerged on television in January as a frail and weakened figure stricken by illness which suddenly had terrible effects.

His final act in active politics was to set a process in train to shut the north's power-sharing government and trigger early elections amid much acrimony towards the DUP.

Soon afterwards his place as Sinn Fein leader in the north was taken by Michelle O'Neill, who was 26 years his junior, demonstrating that we are in the midst of a generation change in the party hierarchy.

Last September Gerry Adams conceded for the first time that he would be standing down as party leader after 33 years - but remained coy about when this would happen.

Both men have dedicated all their adult lives to the republican cause and in the process provided the vital links as the IRA/Sinn Fein moved from armed struggle, via political action, to armed peace, and finally to arms beyond use. Along the way the party moved from shunning the Dail and Assembly, while still boycotting Westminster.

This complex 50-year journey, at best at the pace of two steps forward and one step backward, was led by the Adams-McGuinness duo working side by side without much apparent tension between them.

A political world without either or both will take some adjusting to for their followers, many of whom will hope a dangerous vacuum will not ensue.

A 19-year-old McGuinness became active in the IRA in his native Bogside in Derry at the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969. By 1971 he had already served terms in prison on both sides of the border when he became leader of the Derry IRA.

While his fellow Derryman John Hume was busy engaging in the civil rights movement and moving towards elected politics, McGuinness's business was terrorism at a time of ferocious sectarian conflict. His status within the western section of the IRA was recognised in July 1972 when he was included, along with 22-year-old Adams, in a delegation that was flown secretly to meet Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw in London during a short-lived IRA ceasefire.

Again in collaboration with Adams, McGuinness was among a number of young Northern IRA activists which effected a coup, switching control of the movement from the Republic to the North. For a time he led the IRA's Northern command - but he favoured developing a political strategy from very early on.

McGuinness was a staunch supporter of the decision to stand hunger striker Bobby Sands in a Westminster by-election in April 1981. It was in retrospect an emblematic move towards political action. But he would later argue that the party would at all events have stood in the North's Assembly elections the following year.

He is credited with playing a pivotal role in the debate on ending Sinn Fein's abstention at Leinster House, held among delegates at the Mansion House in Dublin on November 3, 1986.

After the Irish Government suspended the Section 31 broadcast ban in 1994, as a goodwill gesture before the IRA ceasefire, McGuinness became almost as well-known as Adams to television viewers and radio listeners.

Even though he was, for many unionists, the personification of the organic link between the IRA and Sinn Fein, he was named as Education Minister after the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

The first attempts to establish the Belfast power-sharing administration under Ulster Unionist David Trimble and the SDLP's Seamus Mallon stopped and started over several years.

Finally, Ian Paisley's DUP emerged alongside Sinn Fein in 2007. Viewers were treated to the astonishing spectacle of Paisley, the hardline unionist leader who once led his own paramilitary-style group, and McGuinness, the former IRA leader, sharing government leadership. The 'Chuckle Brothers' as they became known had a very cordial and well-functioning relationship.

The astonishing had now become normal. But it was also the high water mark in DUP-SF relations.

In 2008 Paisley's successor, Peter Robinson, took over and relations were less cordial. In 2015 Robinson and McGuinness faced controversy over the sale by Nama of its Northern Ireland portfolio to the US firm Cerberus.

Last January Arlene Foster succeeded Robinson as First Minister. Relations appeared strained from early on and she spoke of the difficulties she experienced with McGuinness, due to his graveside oration at the funeral of the man who, she believes, tried to kill her father.

But they appeared to overcome this and also cope with being on opposite sides in the Brexit referendum on June 23 last. The two-month old row over the so-called 'cash for ash' scheme changed all that.

Before Christmas Mrs Foster insisted she had "nothing to hide" over this scandal and refused to step aside pending investigations as Sinn Fein had demanded. McGuinness kept insisting Mrs Foster should step aside to "allow a time-framed, comprehensive, independent investigation" - and she kept refusing.

Thus Mr McGuinness announced he would resign in protest bringing the whole administration down also.

The ensuing election, which saw major gains for Sinn Fein, appeared the culmination of a lifetime's work.

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